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Whether the cause was the credit crisis, the lingering effects of the “Great Recession,” or just a natural shift in the market for legal services from sellers to buyers, law students and law firms have seen a long-standing equilibrium for achieving success disrupted, and the two sides are still looking for ways to restore it. For many years before 2008, the equilibrium was well settled and based on the institutionalized—and constrained—path to success that law firms presented. Now, however, that path diverges. And law firms are seeking new and innovative ways to sell their product (what is still a very meaningful and fulfilling career path) to a marketplace made up of top students who have many different options at many different stages of their careers. So, how will this balance be restored? Perhaps it will be as simple as both sides recognizing that success for either a student or a firm is not defined as a single concept but rather the ability to take advantage of the significant shifts in the legal marketplace and an openness to doing so. In defining success, lawyers would do well to remember the best answer to most law school questions: It depends.

In hindsight (and with the rose-colored glasses of nostalgia) it all seemed so simple “back in the day.” There was a relatively small group of firms that the market for legal services viewed as “elite” or “highly prestigious,” and among those firms competition was limited. Firms in this group knew the client base of the other firms in the group and, for the most part, each was able to coexist without infringing on the others’ business. Quantitative metrics and ranking tables were not needed in a world in which everyone knew each other and there was more than sufficient work to go around. This was a time before English firms merged with U.S. firms, before the rise of the 3,000-plus lawyer law firm, and before it was an accepted norm that groups of law firm partners could move from one firm to another.

Each of the firms in this elite club recruited from the top 15 or so law schools in the country, but because the number of firms in the club was limited and the work was plentiful, there was abundant need for, and supply of, good students and young lawyers. The billable hour model was rarely questioned, and, given the state of technology, law firms needed a considerable amount of people-power to assist their clients. At that time, many top law students perceived that a job in one of the firms in the elite club was the most prestigious—and most remunerative—route for law students to take.

Most, if not all, of the firms in this group had a well-defined, if not expressly stated, definition of a successful hire. Simply stated, it was a capable junior lawyer who worked hard at the tasks provided. Senior partners managed relationships, junior partners managed the several matters brought into the firm from the relationships managed by the senior partners, and the associates did a large portion of the work. There really was not much need to expand the criteria of evaluation given the limited competition and the small size of the club. Those who excelled at the criteria were shuttled along a seven- or eight-year path and ultimately made a partner (if the profitability of the law firm permitted). Though movement to clients was always an option, lateral movement was rare at every level.

As referred to above, there are many reasons for the fundamental shifts in the current legal market, and those reasons are better left for other fora. It is nevertheless worthwhile to note the following features of the current legal market that have resulted from the shifts: (1) rather than having a relatively small group of firms for law students to review and choose from, “elite” or “highly prestigious” top firms now come in many different sizes and specialties, from large but-still-considered-boutique litigation shops, to more tech-focused firms, to 4,000 lawyer firms with 40-plus offices, offering law students a “something for everyone” assortment, (2) jobs outside the law firm world have become more numerous, interesting, and potentially more remunerative than in the former paradigm, (3) competition is rampant, and (4) advances in technology have greatly enhanced productivity and efficiency.

Students now constantly reevaluate whether a long-term career at a law firm is really the meaning of success—more so, it seems, than in the past. And this reevaluation is a good thing. For those who love practicing in the firm environment, with its commercial intricacies, its premium on creative problem solving and flawless execution, and its competitive rush, it is difficult to think of a more attractive job. Indeed, the variety of experience offered at large firms, in terms of the type of work available, the opportunity for international placement and experience, and the ability to do pro-bono or public interest work is hard to match. But it can come with a corresponding cost of significant time and energy, and students should ensure that is therefore really the right fit for them. It is entirely rational that law students and young lawyers who have seen a job market with increased flexibility and substantial variety of opportunities, and who have a generational openness to change and less devotion to a single job or career, become more mobile just as the world has become more mobile.

Similarly, law firms now evaluate their staffing more actively, and consider whether it is realistic to expect that associates will, or will want to, stay at a firm longer than four to five years. Firms have also adjusted their expectations for associate (and partner) performance in a long-term role. Leadership, management and success in the “business of law” have all become more important measures of achievement. There is, therefore, a need for both young lawyers and law firms to adjust to each other’s expectations and to create a new paradigm for success.

Perhaps a good starting place is to expressly recognize the different career alternatives in the legal marketplace and to foster an open forum for discussing those alternatives. Dialogue regarding alternative career paths has traditionally been muted within law firms. Firms were reluctant to engage in such conversations for fear that they would be left with too few associate resources. Firms also worried (and continue to worry) that associates might misunderstand conversations about alternatives to be implicit warnings of failure within the firm. Students shared, and often continue to share, similar concerns that expressing interest in alternatives implied a rejection of the practice of law at a firm and would engender reciprocal rejection or abandonment by the firm.

Both of these views ignore the reality of what a legal career is or can be, and the approach has to change. From the beginning of a legal career, when associates line up their summer jobs and consider their post-graduate options, they should also consider how they plan to develop. Firms need to shoulder their burden of training and mentoring young lawyers along any of the number of paths they may take. Just as firms have begun to focus more regularly on skills other than legal research and drafting, including marketing, thought leadership and team development, they must also focus on preparing those interested for careers in the public sector, in-house, or even in business apart from the practice of law. Also, where firms may have been inclined in the past to have more siloed practice groups to better serve their client’s siloed business units, there is an increased need for lawyers to be more flexible in their practice and for associates, in particular, to be more well-rounded and capable of shifting between work in different practice areas. This also creates a welcome environment for those students looking for variety in their practice rather than starting and ending their career in a single practice area, and enhances their opportunities in a job market where changing employers and careers happens more frequently. And, of course, everyone has to be more open to talking about options.

What then are some ideas to assist law students and young lawyers achieve a new success equilibrium with law firms? First, there is an increased need for law students and young lawyers to take control of their own careers. Recognizing the wide variety of options now existing in the legal marketplace means also recognizing that a good navigation system is required to take advantage of those options. Second, while there has always been a need for honest and frequent feedback, this is even more important in today’s law firms. It should not be frowned upon to recognize that not every work environment is right for every lawyer at every point in his or her career. Finally, strengthening the relationship between a firm’s recruiting and professional development departments is essential. Whether the law firm assists in developing lawyers for a long term career within the law firm or assists lawyers in finding the right path outside of the law firm, understanding a student’s or young lawyer’s goals from the inception of the recruiting process and throughout their law firm career will be important for the long-term success of both the firm and the lawyer.